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Can internet anonymity survive in a world of online extremism?

Should we increase surveillance of ‘lawless’ online bulletin boards like 4chan and 8chan, and if so, how? Radio NZ’s Max Towle asks 8chan’s founder Fredrick Brennan and New Zealand experts whether the rise of online extremism can be curbed.

Fredrick Brennan would open 4chan when he woke, and close it long after dusk, moments before closing his eyes. During his teenage years, he spent countless hours on the website – an online bulletin board where anyone can anonymously upload images or post comments. As one of millions of faceless users, he typed his thoughts about technology, video games and life itself. Often his parents let him skip school so he could spend all day on his computer.

Brennan has brittle bone disease, and has suffered dozens of breaks and fractures. Anonymous forums were an escape. “People on there seemed very honest and ‘real’ and … I was treated differently on there. In real life, a lot of people perhaps saw me as someone who was fragile and easily injured, and because I had a weak body, I must have a weak mind.”

Once, he wrote a heartfelt post about living with a disability. No one knew it was him.

In 2013, when he was 19, Brennan set up his own rival website, 8chan. As opposed to 4chan, where administrators would determine discussion topics, Brennan wanted to give users more freedom to chat about whatever they wanted. For the first year or so the topics were fairly innocuous, but as the site grew in popularity, so did the alarming nature of the content.

In 2015, the Washington Post described 8chan as a more “lawless” version of 4chan, and a site that welcomed forums dedicated to paedophilia, suicide and concerted harassment and trolling. At the time, Brennan believed this was an unfortunate consequence of freedom.

Speaking from his home in the Philippines, Brennan now says he was focused on boosting 8chan’s popularity. “That toxicity was not something that ever really got to me. I barely considered it. I knew 4chan had gotten extremely toxic and I felt like, if they can [get away with it], why can’t I?”

He quit 8chan in 2016, but mostly out of frustration with the technology and his perceived lack of investment from the site’s backer and owner, Jim Watkins.

Fredrick Brennan in 2014. (Photo: Screenshot / YouTube)

On March 15, hearing a so-called manifesto announcing the terror attacks on two Christchurch mosques had been posted on 8chan, Brennan logged back in. He says he was surprised to see a wealth of content inciting further violence. “A lot of people were celebrating the shootings on the board.”

Yet when asked if he feels any guilt about a mass murder being announced and celebrated on something he created, he bristles. “I feel like – at least this is how I’ve rationalised it to myself – that if it wasn’t 8chan, it would have been some other [website] and there’s nothing I could have done. I did feel a little bit guilty, but I’m not sure it was rational to feel guilty.”

The deepest shadows

Aspects of the manifesto, which has been declared objectionable by the chief censor, appear to show how important such anonymous communities were in the author’s world. The booklet referenced memes, in-jokes and discussion topics that are popular on 8chan, and other similar sites like the more established 4chan.

There is a growing, global movement that is gaining steam within the darkest shadows of the online world; where you can read some of the most vile conversations imaginable. Just this week, shortly before a deadly shooting at a California synagogue, a user identified as the man accused of the attacks announced his intentions on 8chan. Other mass murderers, such as Dylann Roof, convicted for perpetrating the Charleston church shooting in 2015, have been strongly linked with 4chan.

The popularity of these two sites is immense – 4chan averages more than 8 million visitors per month. Their political discussion groups have long been known for extremist ideas – racism, homophobia, sexism, graphic violence, and, occasionally, child pornography. These sites require no sign-up process or usernames.

A few weeks ago, 8chan’s owner Jim Watkins publicly denied his site should take any responsibility for the Christchurch shootings, saying it was impossible to predict the attacks: “There are no Tom Cruises out there with psychic assistance to stop someone from committing a crime before they commit it.”

He said New Zealand enforcement agencies, such as the police, were essentially powerless.

Strange territory

It is virtually impossible to determine who is posting what in the dark, anonymous corners of the internet. This is a problem raised by politicians around the world, and one without a clear solution.

The two “chans” and their ilk have been on the radar of New Zealand’s security agencies for years, says Netsafe chief executive Martin Cocker. Although until the shootings, he says there has been no reason to engage with them. “We were certainly aware that these sites existed and the conversations that happen on them … [but] it was a different sort of environment for us to suddenly be actively working in.”

Since March 15, Netsafe has contacted about 40 websites that hosted and played a role in distributing the livestream, including 4chan and 8chan, and only six agreed to remove content. Six flatly rejected the request, while 4chan and 8chan didn’t even respond. “In the long term, these sorts of sites are the real problem areas. They don’t abide by our laws, but they also don’t really abide by any laws. They’re so dominated with the idea of freedom of speech that they become the home of hateful, problematic content,” says Cocker.

Some of the discussion groups on 4chan (Photo: 4chan / Screenshot)

Like Netsafe, the police appear to have been contacting sites also. The operator of American site Kiwi Farms, Josh Moon, publicly shared an email he received from New Zealand Police requesting information about the website’s users, including their email and IP addresses. Moon responded: “Is this a joke? I’m not turning over information about my users.”

NZ Police would not say what response they have received from other sites, although last month, the official Twitter account of 8chan tweeted it had “not received any takedown request from any government or law enforcement agency, NZ or otherwise”. The account also tweeted: “Non-US governments have no jurisdiction over 8chan.”

Here in New Zealand, the government has been coy regarding how it can prevent similar tragedies. National Party leader Simon Bridges has called for the resurrection of a cyber-snooping proposal that gives greater scope to scan internet traffic coming into the country, but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she doubted it would help agencies like the Security Intelligence Service. “What I haven’t had evidence around is whether or not their powers limited them from doing the work they needed to do,” she told RNZ. This is a question the Royal Commission [an inquiry into the country’s security agencies following the Christchurch attacks] will investigate. Ardern added that working in an online environment that features anonymous groups and encryptions is “not easy”, and a challenge for every democracy.

Last month the Prime Minister announced an international “call to action” led by New Zealand and France to ensure the most popular social media platforms aren’t used to organise and promote terrorism, yet smaller sites, like 4chan and 8chan, aren’t the focus of this. Last month the director general of the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), Andrew Hampton, said agencies don’t have the technical capability, legal authority or resources to monitor all online activity in the country. He said there wasn’t any evidence to suggest the accused shooter was a person of interest. Regarding the difficulty of monitoring chat rooms, he said “you need to know where to look”.

Fredrick Brennan says as long as people are able to use the internet in a certain way, they can act without any fear of repercussions. The only concrete way to restrict harmful content, he says, is replicate China and its heavily censored internet. “China has attached a name to everyone’s connection. Even in anonymous forums, your account is anonymous to other users, but the website and the authorities know who you are,” Brennan says.

“As long as the internet is free and open, there’s really no way to prevent videos like the Christchurch shootings from spreading.”

A stop sign

There is one potential solution, but according to Martin Cocker, it is a “crude” one. After the Christchurch attacks, the country’s biggest internet service providers (ISPs) – Vodafone, Spark and 2degrees – came together to block people’s access to 8chan, 4chan, Kiwi Farms, and dozens of other similar sites that hosted live footage of the attacks. The blocks lasted a couple of weeks. In a joint statement, the ISPs conceded it was an “extraordinary” move: “[We] accept it is impossible as internet service providers to prevent completely access to this material. But hopefully we have made it more difficult for this content to be viewed and shared.”

The blocks were criticised both internationally and at home by some in the tech world, who felt they restricted people’s freedom of expression. Online magazine Slate wrote 4chan and 8chan may be “awful internet places whose ugliness spills into public view”, but that doesn’t render the actions of New Zealand’s ISPs less concerning. “It is censorship when ISPs, which are merely gateways to … conversations, try to take on hate speech or other content themselves. We don’t want ISPs making those calls.”

What really concerned the chairperson of the NZ Council of Civil Liberties, Thomas Beagle, was the lack of transparency. “There was no apparent process or any of the things we want to see in a well-regulated system … the ISPs, which connect over 90% of the population, claim they took the action on their own.” Beagle says 4chan and 8chan may host awful content, but they’re also sites where topics like anime, TV and politics are discussed. Yet Cocker says beyond blocking, there’s little else that can be done – “[it’s] not easy to put down a plan of response that will make any difference at all”.

The Sri Lankan government’s blackout of social media sites after the terror bombings on Easter Sunday, which was lifted this week, came under similar scrutiny.

8chan founder Fredrick Brennan says right now it’s impossible to stop, or even identify, those determined to spread content like the livestream of the Christchurch attacks, or post violent messages. “[Blocking] might stop normal people who don’t understand how the complexities of the internet works, but for people who have any understanding of the domain name system, let alone peer-to-peer sharing, it’s ineffective.”

Yet blocking is a blunt tool he, like Martin Cocker, predicts will be used more in the future. “I believe we’re going to see a lot more ISPs forced by courts to block things in certain countries because of websites that aren’t cooperative outside their borders. I wouldn’t say this is a good thing, it’s just what I believe will happen.”

The dark crevices

Tackling the technology may be the focus, but understanding the type of people who use anonymous sites may be equally, if not more, important.

Ginger Gorman, an Australian investigative journalist who recently published a book about online hate, Troll Hunting, has been closely following, and interacting on sites like 4chan and 8chan for years. She told RNZ white nationalist radicalisation is happening in these spaces, and nothing regarding what happened on March 15 surprised her. “These are conversations being had in the cesspit of the internet … the things [in the manifesto] are actually part of a whole culture that exists there.” She says law enforcement around the world is “completely out of its depth”.

Ginger Gorman (Photo: Hilary Wardhaugh)

There’s a sense of power afforded to people in anonymous forums, says Kathleen Kuehn, a Victoria University media lecturer who specialises in surveillance and online privacy. Outside of the sites, a “spiral of silence” is perpetuated. “If you hold a minority political view you might not want to speak up, and so you might retreat to anonymous spaces.”

She suggests some don’t really believe what they write online, but are simply being provocative. “Those thoughts may exist in their hearts and minds, but there is behavioural research that [suggests] if you create a fake identity, your goal may be simply to be a troll. That speaks to the sense that there’s no connection to the real self in these spaces, and that can encourage anti-social behaviour.”

In Fredrick Brennan’s experience, the racism, sexism and homophobia is real: “This argument is something I think a lot of people use as a shield. Most of the people posting on 4chan who are edgy and racist really believe what they’re saying.”

While running 8chan, he often received shocking emails from people using the site. “I was like, ‘wow, I am talking to a neo-Nazi right now’,” he recalls. “There may be some kids making jokes or people blowing off steam, but I believe a great majority believe what they’re posting. They may just be too scared to say the same thing in real life.”

And anonymity is key: “When you take away someone’s name and image, they will say what’s in the dark crevices of their heart. They know it won’t be traced back to them, and so they open up and you get to see what’s inside them,” says Brennan.

These days, he says he uses anonymous sites as little as possible. Reflecting now, he feels he wasted a lot of his life. “As I’ve grown up, I’ve realised that these sites aren’t real. Most people aren’t like that in real life – they’re not deeply racist, and not everybody has a constantly negative outlook. I used to think it was honest and edgy because of how dark it was, but I was missing the lighter side of life.”

Beyond the screen

Anonymity may incite toxicity, but it can also provide people with a voice – Kathleen Kuehn says it all depends on context. “People living in oppressive regimes have a vested political interest in remaining anonymous – they may want to criticise the government or organise a protest and they don’t want to be punished for their views.” And while those in more democratic countries may not have the same fears, “some of us just don’t want to be watched”.

Other anonymous spaces might include closed discussion groups regarding queer rights, anonymous auctions on TradeMe, or people, like the teenage Fredrick Brennan, craving the freedom to open up about their disability.

Kuehn says the internet is built on the idea of experimenting with ideas without the fear of being socially sanctioned, and connecting with people you might never meet in reality.

Brennan says ultimately, every country will have to decide what it wants from the internet: “Do you want to connect to the free, open internet where you can say anything, be anonymous and [perhaps] spread a livestream video so it can never be deleted; or do you want to segregate yourself from that, as China has done?”

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He says it’s no surprise New Zealand agencies appear to be scratching their heads: “As soon as you get to a server that isn’t in New Zealand, your police are kind of impotent.”

Kuehn says we might be looking for answers in the wrong places: “The conversation about stopping abusive content and the alt-right and hate speech always seems to resort to a technological fix – that we just need to make the technology better and the problem is solved.”

But, she says prohibiting anonymity, or toxic anonymous spaces, probably isn’t the solution. As soon as one space closes, another will open: “If you want to fix the problem, you need to address the ideas. You’re not going to solve hate speech until you solve racism and sexism and homophobia. As a society, these are problems that go beyond the online world. Let’s all get fucking woke, anything else is just a band-aid.”

This post also appeared as an RNZ Insight podcast, which you can listen to here.


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